Cartes de visite: More than just photographs

Recently, we digitized a large collection of cartes de visite, a mid 19th century photography phenomenon that featured albumen prints mounted on heavy paper or cardstock.

Here are some examples — click on each image to see it up close, complete with the photography studio labeled on the front:

Each carte de visite (CDV) was about the size of a calling card, making it easy to carry around and exchange this new technology with others.

But these cards feature more than just photographs. The back of the card provided the photography studio with an opportunity to advertise its business. While some studios simply included a name and address, or perhaps the processes they offered or their pricing structure, some used decorative monograms or icons to draw potential customers’ attention.

Some studios, though, used more elaborate illustrations. A common one was the artist’s palette, perhaps indicating the attitude these studios took toward their craft:

This one includes both a palette and an equally common icon: the camera itself.


Here’s another that features a camera, this one in the act of taking a photograph:


You’ll see a camera in the second image below, this one being wielded by a cherub, a surprisingly common motif on our CDV backs.

More exotic figures sometimes appeared on card backs, like the lion and sphinx below:

exotic_0400071 exotic_1400088

The second card above is a good example of illustrations used as a decorative border for a largely text-based presentation. Here are some others:

Some photographers included images of their actual studio space on CDV backs, like these:

But some card back illustrations are even more complex. This one is quite elaborate but a sort of perplexing choice for advertising art:


To find more cartes de visite — to see photos of everyday folks from the 19th century and get a sense of the self-conceptions and business practices of photographers — check out the Southern Cartes de Visite Collection in Acumen.

3D Digitization Project: testing phase (continued)

Last week, we told you about a test of our Digitization Manager’s relief digitization process, under development thanks to a UA Libraries’ Innovation Grant.

The project: a process to capture relief data using (1) a regular mounted digital camera setup, (2) a piece of simple secondary hardware, (3) the ubiquitous photo editing program Adobe Photoshop, and (4) some homegrown open-source software.

For the last few months, Jeremiah’s been simultaneously working on designing the hardware (and in a way that can be replicated by others), writing the software (a Ruby script), and working out the logistics of the technique. While last week’s post focused on how the captures are made, this one will focus a bit more on how and why the technique works.

Light and Dark

You might be wondering, Why do you need an extra piece of hardware? The short answer: light. The relief capture process depends on using brightness values to determine height, and the hardware Jeremiah built helps in this aspect.



The movable mask (green) makes the mounted lights illuminate an object in just the right way, as it comes into view through the opening in the mask. The object, down below the mask, is being shot from above and illuminated at an angle:apperture-lightingWhere both lights cross and hit the object, the brightness values will be highest; where neither light hits the object, the brightness values will be lowest. Dozens of slices of the object are shot, each being illuminated in this way.

Height and Depth

When the slices are layered into a single image, called a height map, the composite brightness values can be used to create a sense of the object’s height and depth.  Here’s what the height map looks like for Mr. Hoole’s key:

hoole_key_dispOf course, this is in black and white, since it’s only using the lights and darks of the brightness channel. Color values return when a single, un-sliced shot of the object, called a texture map, is combined with the height map in Jeremiah’s software. The software transforms the data into a .x3d file so the object can be viewed in all its lovely dimensions.

The first time we processed the key, though, the dimensions weren’t so lovely:

hoole_key_no_blurLooks kind of fuzzy, no? We picked up so much detail from the surface of the key, so many light and dark tones, that it appears to have wildly variable height and depth, even from pixel to pixel.

The solution in this case was to blur the height map a bit:


Okay — so it was blurred what looks like a lot, but it was necessary to tame the height values. The texture map, however, wasn’t blurred, so the overall detail is still good:


(You might also notice the background doesn’t show up in this 3D rendering. This wasn’t because of the blur applied but because Jeremiah manually blacked out the background areas, now that he was satisfied with the way the rest turned out.)

Jeremiah’s still in the process of testing the technique and tweaking the software and hardware designs where needed. You’ll see more about this project once it’s out of the testing phase and ready for its public debut. :)

3D Digitization Project: testing phase

Our Digitization Manager, Jeremiah, has been working on a pretty exciting project, and we thought we’d share some pictures from the testing phase.

Late last year, we got a grant from UA Libraries to develop a digitizing process for relief objects, including an inexpensive apparatus used to facilitate the image capture (see these posts about making the components) and a Ruby program that creates the 3D files. The project is now in the testing phase.

For my first test run last week, we chose one of the large keys that used to be in the possession of our special collection library‘s namesake, W. S. Hoole. (Thank you, Associate Dean Mary Bess Paluzzi!) They’re not only cool shapes to work with, but they also have some nice textures:

In Jeremiah’s process, dozens of shots of an object are taken and composited together. To make those captures with our usual mounted-camera digitization setup, we’ve added a secondary apparatus, one with a mask that moves back and forth over the object, targeting portions of it for capture:

Most of what I learned this go-around was how to set up the object for digitization, orienting it to the apparatus. Here it is on a platform under the apparatus (with mask removed):

Once the object is in place, it can’t be moved. Instead, everything else moves, structuring the way light is cast onto the item:

  1. The position of the apparatus changes after each pass over the object. At minimum, we shoot the object from two different orientations, usually three. (If you look at the wide shots above up close, you’ll see circular position marks on the table.)
  2. The position of the opening — or aperture — in the green mask is moved in increments during the digitization process, so that we capture multiple different views of the object through the aperture.




Why is the mask bright green? For exactly the reason you might expect — to use a green-screen process. It’s not too different from how actors are shot in front of a green background so computer-generated effects can be added in around them. In this case, the green signals to the Ruby software which portions of the image should be cut out — namely, the parts that aren’t the slice of the object.

After all the capture is done, the images are combined into a whole. It looks like this, before we map a color shot onto it:


In subsequent posts, we’ll talk how the compositing technique works. It has a lot to do with lighting. In the meantime, this is a screenshot of the final product of the key test:


Searching Acumen – Limiting by Field

Acumen’s simple one-box search is pretty robust, searching multiple fields by default, but what if you need to pinpoint a specific field in the record? In the second in our series of posts on searching our digital repository, Acumen, we discuss searching by field — how to enter that kind of search into the box and why you’d even want to.

How do I do it?

The format for fielded searching in Acumen is actually fairly simple. Enter it in the search box like this:


Here are some examples:


You can use any of the fields shown above to do a limited search.

If you want to include more than one keyword, format your search like this:

field:(keyword AND keyword)
genre:(christmas AND cards)
date:(june AND 1863)

If you want to use more than one field in one search, format it like this:

field:keyword AND field:keyword
title:cantata AND creator:handel
subject:boxing AND description:match

Why would I do it?

Putting a single word in the box and searching isn’t a bad plan, but like with limiting by format, limiting by field can help narrow down a large set of results.

For example, the keyword legal can come up in a variety of places in a record. A simple search for that keyword yields 6417 results, but things look pretty different when you do a fielded search. You’ll see the number of results below the search box area, on the left:



In another example, the keyword time brings up 1185 results. Here’s what it looks like in different fields:



In general, using multiple keywords can get you more focused results, especially if you put AND between them. (The default is to look for one word OR the other.) Using multiple keywords in a limited search is even better, either within one field or between different fields.

football game = 679 results
football AND game = 183 results
title:(football AND game) = 104 results

This is especially true when you’re dealing with very common words and phrases.

photograph 1908 = 28798 results
photograph AND 1908 = 155 items
genre:photograph AND date:1908 = 71 results

The key to searching in a library catalogue or database is the old adage, “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” Specifically, try different things. One strategy is to use different words and phrases for the same concept, but you should also consider limiting your search to a particular field. In Acumen, it’s simple: just enter field:term.



Interested in digitization?

We’re looking for a new Digitization Technologist.  Are you looking for an interesting, challenging position where you’ll learn about digitization of images, text, and audio?  Where you’ll expand your developing scripting skills, learn XML (if you don’t already know it) and get up to your elbows in technical and preservation metadata?  Do you like working both on your own and as part of a close-knit team?

If this sounds like it might be right up your alley, check out the full description (under “IT Technical Specialist I – Digitization Technologist – 49792″) and submit your application before June 9 (2014).   Thanks.  We’ll be interviewing very soon!

Campus Rewind: The President’s Mansion

For this installment of Campus Rewind, check out these photos of the President’s Mansion, recently added to HistoryPin.

Besides the building, you’ll see a former President, a then-current First Lady, students protesting, and students horsing around, antebellum costume (in the 1960s!), and some truly scary plaid bell bottoms. :)

While you’re at it, take a look at the other items we’ve collected at our HistoryPin channel. Among them is a tour of images from the Crimson Tide’s trip to the 1926 Rose Bowl.

Searching Acumen – Using Tabs to Limit by Format

In the first of a series of posts on searching Acumen, our digital repository, we’ll be discussing a quick and often illuminating way to limit a search: using the tabs at the top of the search box.

Each tab limits the search to a particular kind of source, from books and manuscripts to audio, images, and even student research. Since these tabs can be selected at any point in the search process, they’re especially useful for switching your perspective on a set of results. With a search term already in the search box, simply select a tab and hit enter again to see what limiting to a particular format can unearth.

For example, searching for “civil war” results in a lot of content: 6127 results! But limiting the search to various tabs can help narrow down those results, sometimes to things you didn’t even know you wanted:

search-civilwarWho knew that Hoole library had hand-drawn maps of the war? And who would have thought about searching for sheet music?

How about “cotton”? You’ll find that our repository has resources that touch on all parts of the cotton farming industry: from an audio interview with a sharecropper to a collection of photos documenting cotton picking and harvesting to numerous pieces of manuscript material on the subject, such as receipts for cotton sales:


You’ll notice we’ve even got several pieces of sheet music, attesting to the fact that cotton was once a prominent part of popular culture.

Perhaps you’d want to search for our former governor, “George Wallace.” Using tabbed searching brings up the expected — the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door — as well as the unexpected — including an audio file of a speech he gave at UA in the late 1960s.


Did you know Wallace was instrumental in getting Alabama’s two-year college system off the ground? More importantly, did you know he was a boxer? :)

What about a search for “football”? It turns up things you might not have known were there, including issues of the student magazines Mahout and Rammer Jammer, a scrapbook of UA football memories from the 1960s, images of students playing intramural football, and student research about game analysis:


Search results always appear in the order of best match to the keyword, and best and most matches to multiple keywords. However, all things being equal, the results are presented in order of type, which does not exactly follow the order of the tabs. Images, books, manuscripts, and finding aids are first, then sheet music, audio, maps, and research.

So one good use of tabbed search is to get past lots of image results, for example, or to get to things usually further down the line like sheet music, audio, and maps.

April 15, 1865 – A Tale of Two Cities


It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. 

Englishman Charles Dickens wrote that in 1859, just two years before England’s former colonies began a long and bloody civil war. I wonder if that quote came to the minds of any Americans during the week of April 9-15, 1865. Depending on what perspective one had about the state of national politics, that one week entailed both a triumphant victory and a crushing defeat.

On Sunday April 9, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered, signaling the beginning of the end for the Confederacy and the Civil War. On Friday April 14, President Lincoln, who had been determined to keep the country together, was assassinated, dying the next morning.

In the process of digitizing a collection of newspaper clippings that had little to do with either the Civil War or Lincoln, we ran across what must’ve been a treasured copy of the New York Herald from April 15, 1865. We thought we’d share some clippings from it.

The Death of a President

Beyond the details of the tragedy, perhaps the most interesting thing about this news story is the insight it gives us on how newspaper reporting was done in the middle of the nineteenth century. Much of the news is presented as “dispatches,” first-person observations sent by telegraph or messenger. As with modern news stories, newer information was often tacked on to older information, to give a sense of how things have developed.

The April 15 edition repeated the earliest dispatches from Washington, from the night before:

april14Just after midnight, more news began coming in. At first, there was no talk of the president’s fate, as no one had apparently heard the doctor’s prognosis. Instead, the focus is on the crime’s perpetrators, and on the city waiting and fearing:


When the news did come in, it wasn’t good, as evidenced in the reactions of those at Lincoln’s bedside:

april15_1am-2 april15_1am-3

Sometime in the wee hours of the morning, a dispatch came from Edwin Stanton, the Secretary of War, who was on hand at the scene:


By 7:30 a.m., the Herald was able to pronounce that the assassination had ultimately been successful:


This was just the beginning of the story, fleshed out in editions to come.

The End of a War

The Dickens quote above comes from his novel A Tale of Two Cities, the cities in question being London and Paris. But the two cities most in the minds of Herald readers were likely the fractured country’s two capitals: Washington, D.C., and Richmond, Virginia, just over 100 miles apart.

It’s also where our two stories meet, in a way. During the week before the surrender at Appomattox Courthouse and the assassination, Lincoln toured the newly fallen Confederate stronghold himself. He must’ve felt that the war’s end was near.

News from Richmond was slow to come to the Herald – it was apparently gleaned almost entirely second-hand, from southern newspapers — so some of what was reported in the April 15 edition stretched back to before the surrender.

News from April 5, the day after the fall of Richmond, brings the “first rebel account of how the city was abandoned”:


“We have no doubt that a considerable portion of the brave city has been laid in ashes and a number of its people insulted, outraged, robbed, and massacred.”

From that same day came report of a plea by Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Viewing the situation in hindsight, the Herald editors were able to label it “Jeff. Davis’ last proclamation.” It was one that called on southerners’ “unconquered and unconquerable hearts”:


“It is for us, my countrymen, to show by our bearing under reverses how wretched has been the self-deception of those who have believed us less able to endure misfortune with fortitude than to encounter dangers with courage.”

In a dispatch from April 11, the fall of Richmond was reported in greater detail, including the response of the Union army and the continued advance of Confederate General Johnston, who did not give up until a few days after this edition was published:


Johnston’s refusal to back down is also mentioned here, with the report of April 14:


The following are all second-hand reports from southern newspapers on April 13. They include details of the surrender as well as an exhortation to southerners — taken from a Richmond newspaper – to “dismiss rancor from their hearts” and make peace:


And they did make peace. Was one of the costs of that peace the death of the wartime President? We’ll never quite know the answer to that question. What we do know is this tale of two cities gripped the nation, making it one of the most eventful and momentous weeks of newspaper reporting the country has ever seen.

It just goes to show how much a single item from an archive can tell you!


Family Connections

With a collection as regional as the one at the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library, it’s not surprising to find some occasional overlap.

The Wynne Family Papers and the Meriwether Family Papers come together with the Coleman family, as you can see in this family tree (click to view a larger version):



When Alice Coleman Meriwether’s brother Bestor married a Wynne girl (Laura), it meant their families — and family papers — were inextricably entangled, for better or worse.

What’s in a Name

While having more information about each family makes relationships easier to figure out, it sometimes also adds to the confusion. Compounding this problems is the tendency of women in the 19th century south to give their maiden names to their children, usually as first names. For example, Bestor Wynne Coleman carries three family names, including one that goes back to his paternal grandmother’s family in Connecticut.

Some women apparently also named their daughters after themselves, much like men might name their sons. When Alice Coleman married John Meriwether, she became Alice Coleman Meriwether, the same name her daughter carried until her own marriage.

Frances Laura Anderson Wynne gave her name to her daughter, although, luckily for us, she called herself simply Laura. (She became Laura Wynne Coleman.) There’s a good bet her daughter, Fannie Coleman, was also a Frances herself. To add to the confusion, there’s also a picture of an infant labeled Fannie Julia Scott — which means Julia Wynne Scott must have named her daughter after her mother (and herself!), too.

Of course, the really interesting thing about the extended Wynne-Coleman-Meriwether family is the breadth of their combined collections. These two sets of papers include letters and other documents that span most of the 19th century, an important period of growth and change in America.

From the Meriwether Collection

From the Meriwether collection, we’ve already highlighted yankee Juliet Bestor’s long journey to Alabama to get married in the 1830s. As Coleman family matriarch, she was deeply mourned at her passing:

eulogy for Juliet Coleman

In addition to Juliet’s papers, the Meriwether collection mainly consists of letters between Alice Coleman Meriwether and her husband, John, as he served in the Alabama Infantry during the Civil War. Included in the collection is a map of the Battle of Vicksburg which John drew by hand:

hand drawn map of battle of vicksburg

The rest of Alice’s correspondence pops up in the Wynne collection, as letters to and from Laura Coleman. Use this link to see those items.

From the Wynne Collection

On the Wynne side, we have pictures of all the siblings:

William was a lawyer. Among several legal documents in the collection (see Wynne/Miscellaneous Documents) is this contract:

marriage agreement signed by W. A. Wynne

Apparently, William approached everything, even a good-natured personal bet, with a legal eye. Did he end up having to pay up? Unless the other two remained bachelors, he would’ve been one of the losers of the bet, as he never married.

Neither did his brother Thomas. Thomas is rarely in family correspondence, but he seems to have had a close relationship with Julia. Read this letter from Julia to Thomas (1867) and this from Thomas to Julia (1869) to get a sense of the relationship between these youngest Wynne siblings. The two oldest Wynne siblings were apparently also close, given the number of letters between them, like these examples from 1852: Martha to William (April) and William to Martha (August).

Like Thomas, William was not a big letter writer, judging from the evidence we have. However, the rest of the Wynne siblings were apparently frequent correspondents, as this assortment shows:

Much of the Wynne collection, however, originates with Laura Wynne Coleman, especially letters to and from her daughter Fannie and her son B. W., called Wynne. In the finding aid, see Wynne/Correspondence, especially the 1870s and 1880s.

What’s Not in a Name

There’s a lot one can glean from looking at changing names over decades of correspondence. However, some family connections remain a mystery without deeper digging:

  • Who is Julia Coleman McLemore? Perhaps a sister or cousin or niece of James Cobb Coleman? She conversed regularly with Laura and Wynne Coleman, as early as the 1840s.
  • Who is Mattie T. Wynne? She calls Laura Wynne Coleman “cousin,” so she’s probably not Martha (Mattie) Ann Wynne Sturdivant. And is she the same person as Mattie Webster, who is also “cousin” to Laura?
  • Did Thomas O. Wynne work at Webster and Wilson? Is this the same Webster that married his sister Elizabeth?

The Day the Campus Burned

Five days later, and it might not have happened at all.

Five days later, Robert E. Lee was surrendering at Appomattox Courthouse, and the Civil War was officially over. Five days later, Brigadier General John T. Croxton wouldn’t have been looking to cripple Tuscaloosa by destroying everything of value, including an academic institution turned makeshift military academy.

What did the “West Point of the Confederacy” look like back then? Here’s an illustration, from the campus’s first decade (1839):

UA campus 1839

On the left is Franklin Hall, with Madison Hall on the right. In the center is the rotunda, which housed the school’s library, with the Lyceum in the background.

Here’s a photo from 1861:

ua campus 1861

However idyllic these images look, all was not peaceful at the school, even before the war. The students were rowdy and disobedient, prompting President Garland to implement a system of military discipline in 1860. In some ways, this was lucky for the students — they and their compatriots around the state would need this training once the war came.


On April 3, 1865, Union troops met UA cadets at River Hill, at a bridge over the Black Warrior River. In a 1990 article on the subject (see References, below), Clark Center, former Curator of the W. S. Hoole Special Collections Library, recounted the decision facing the group:

As the Corps waited in position, President Garland held a conference with Commandant Murfee and Captain James S. Carpenter, a confederate officer. Carpenter informed Garland and Murfee of the overwhelming odds facing the small force of three hundred boys. Not only were the cadets outnumbered, but the Federal troops were armed with repeating rifles. And to rub salt into the wound, the Corps’ own field pieces, captured before they could be brought into play, were now trained on the bridge and its approaches from the Northport side.

Garland made his decision. Unwilling to commit the Corps to useless sacrifice, he marched the boys back to the campus. Once there, they quickly gathered their overcoats, blankets, and haversacks, which they filled with hard-tack from the commissary stores, and fell back into ranks.

By two o’clock in the morning the Corps and many of the faculty were marching east along the Huntsville Road, away from Tuscaloosa and the University.

Not all the faculty left, however. The next day, when Colonel Thomas M. Johnston and the Second Michigan Cavalry came onto the campus, they were met by Andre Deloffre, a Frenchman who taught French and Spanish…

Andrew De Loffre 1859

…and William Wyman (bottom), who taught Latin and Greek.

William Wyman

Deloffre, who served as the University librarian, was reportedly the one who begged Johnston not to destroy the rotunda, which housed some 7,000 volumes, in addition to the school’s natural history collection.

While Center’s piece provides a historical account of the events of April 9, 1865, another version of events, by early 20th century Tuscaloosa historian James A. Anderson, takes a more artistic approach. Here’s Anderson’s dramatization of that moment, from The Destruction of the University of Alabama Library: An Episode of the Civil War, written in the 1930s:


Facing a plea that might’ve been much like this once, Johnston relented, at least enough to send a messenger to Croxton, asking what he might do. But the reply wasn’t good. Croxton had no choice: all public buildings must be destroyed. And so they were.

Lyceum ruins drawing

(Drawing, ruins of the Lyceum)


What was the heart of campus then is still the heart of campus now. If you stand at the stone monument on the Quad, facing the steps of Gorgas Library…


…then you’re standing about where the rotunda used to be. If you were there amid the rubble in the late 1860s, looking across more rubble where the Lyceum once stood (round about Clark Hall), you’d have a view of the newly built Woods Hall:


You’d also be looking at bricks from the original campus structures, salvaged and incorporated into Woods and other subsequent buildings.

So, was anything left standing? Yes, and those four campus buildings are still here today:

  1. the guardhouse, now known as the Round House, which sits next to Gorgas Library
  2. Gorgas House, located next to Morgan Hall on the northwest corner of the Quad
  3. the President’s Mansion, across University Boulevard from Denny Chimes
  4. the old Observatory, now known as Maxwell Hall, across from Bruno Library on the west side of campus


Other traces of the old campus still remain. There on the shady side of the Quad where Franklin Hall used to be is The Mound, which has come to play its own important part in UA’s more recent past and present, serving as the location for “tappings” on Honors Day.

Franklin1 Franklin2

On the sunny side of the Quad, a brick plinth marks the spot where Madison Hall once stood.


Long after the original campus’s destruction, its architectural styles influenced the rebuilding and continuing growth of the campus, and inspired those who perhaps never even saw the buildings, like the amateur artist who made this drawing of the rotunda (side view) in the 1880s:


Five days before the end of the war, the campus of the University of Alabama was forever changed. In the decades after the war, the ersatz military training facility became a real military college. Eventually, though, it shed its martial past to become a co-ed institution of higher learning, with its own societal conflicts and, thankfully, more peaceful resolutions.



Center, Clark. “The Burning of the University of Alabama.” Alabama Heritage 16 (Spring 1990): 30-45.